Cardinal celebrates woman whose love of numbers helped birth today’s tech

By John Lyle Belden

“Good women make for better men.”

This line, spoken by Ada Byron Lovelace in “Ada and the Engine,” the play by Lauren Gunderson presented by Cardinal Stage in Bloomington, is a good summation of the young Countess’s collaboration with fellow mathematician Charles Babbage, credited with inventing the precursor to the modern computer. He envisioned the “engine,” but she saw its true potential.

Ada (played by Megan Massie) was the only legitimate child of scandalous and legendary poet Lord Byron and his wife Anabella (Francesca Sobrer). He abandoned them when she was a baby, giving her little more than a verse she would treasure and a family stain upon her reputation.

Perhaps we can credit the rakish poet in a backhanded way for how Ada’s genius flowered, as her mother had her thoroughly schooled in mathematics in a vain attempt to keep her away from creative endeavors. Her voracious appetite for unlocking the mysteries of maths brings Ada into the orbit of Babbage (Eric Olson), who desperately seeks funds for completing his Difference Engine, which could revolutionize accounting by eliminating human error while handling large numbers in making accurate sums. As he and Ada converse, and later correspond, he realizes the machine could be modified and expanded to do more mathematical functions – the Analytical Engine.

Ada’s tutor, Mary Sommerville (Sobrer), warns Babbage he is too old for then-18 Ada, and especially not to invite the scandal many feared would follow her infamous family name. He insists he is only interested in intellectual stimulation, and she settles for a friendship in letters while accepting the courtship and proposal of Lord Lovelace (Kevin Aoussou).

The marriage does little to lessen the tension between Lovelace and Babbage, but they agree to let Ada write a translation of a paper on the Engine, complete with notes to clarify and explain its principles and capabilities – the Notes would not only be twice the length of the original paper, but also give applications and ideas, including a punch-card driven algorithm since credited as the first computer program, beyond what Babbage had envisioned. She even saw its number-crunching for other uses of numeric symbols, including musical notes.

Now, they just have to find some way to build it.

Gunderson’s focus in this drama, aside from Ada’s contributions to STEM, is on the likely relationship between her and Babbage. Historians might take issue with how close their friendship gets. Still, the story respects that given the pressures of British high society at the time, and the facts on record, any deeper love was unrequited. Yet there are some sparks here, which Massie and Olson masterfully wield in their moments alone. Sobrer’s Anabella, though meaning well, can’t help but play the tyrant in her constant diligence against the “Byron madness” that haunts her and her daughter. Aoussou portrays a man in a tough spot, but coming to understand his Ada does love him, as well as her Engine.

Aoussou also gives a nice cameo as Lord Byron himself.

An interesting stage floor, designed by Reuben Lucas, runs down the center of the theater, with audience seating on either side. Director Kate Galvin has the performances balanced with equal face time in each direction. Each end of the stage represents the two sides of Ada’s life: one the Victorian elegance of a British lady, the other a steampunk-inspired vision of Babbage’s world.

Equal parts inspiring and romantic, “Ada and the Engine” gives us a celebration of the lives of arguably the great-grandparents of the machine you are likely reading this on. Performances run through April 16 at Waldron Auditorium, 122 S. Walnut St., Bloomington. Get information and tickets (“pay what you will” pricing) at cardinalstage.org.

Important ‘Mountaintop’ in the hills of Bloomington

By Wendy Carson

On April 3, 1968, the night before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death by assassination, he gave one of his most famous speeches. Known as, “I have been to the Mountaintop”, it encourages people to wonder what would happen to them if they didn’t act in service to others, rather than what would happen to them if they did. 

He speaks of traveling through history and witnessing numerous times of oppressed peoples overcoming their struggles. He reminds us of what we have already been through and how we can continue to overcome poverty and injustice by working together to support one another. 

However, he also speaks about his near-death experience from a knife attack years earlier and how a mere sneeze could have killed him. He references the constant barrage of death threats that he endures each and every day. He acknowledges that he will not always be there to continue the fight for justice and equality. Yet, he assures us that he knows that what he has begun will continue on after he is gone.

This speech, its message, and King’s life are the inspirations for Katori Hall’s play, “The Mountaintop,” presented by Cardinal Stage in Bloomington. 

King (Michael Aaron Pogue) retires to his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis to try and get some rest while working on his next speech. He sends a friend to get him some cigarettes to help with this mission. After calling down to the front desk for room service, his coffee is delivered by Camae (AshLee “PsyWrn Simone” Baskin), a beautiful maid on her first night of her new job. She also brings with her the next day’s paper. With the storm raging outside and his reluctance to be alone, the two engage in a spirited discussion of King’s life, the Civil Rights struggle, and the future. 

Hall pulls no punches in portraying King as an honorable but flawed man. Pogue proudly shows us King’s many great achievements while also regretfully acknowledging his indiscretions and moral failings. He also shows us flashes of future inevitability in his panicked reactions to the claps of thunder which, sounding to him like gunshots, rattle King so.

Baskin shows Camae as a mater-of-fact woman who has no time or desire to mince words and always clearly speaks her mind. She manages to keep the character’s expletive-laden rants light yet never denies the meaning and power behind them. She also skillfully keeps Camae sympathetic once we learn the truth of who it is she is actually working for. 

Director Ansley Valentine brings us a story that reminds us not just of the loss of a great leader for change but also that the struggle is not a sprint, but a relay race, and we are all responsible for our part in it. So, take up the baton, and see this show. 

Performances run through March 20 at the Waldron Arts Center, 122 S. Walnut St., Bloomington. Get information and tickets (“pay what you will” pricing) at cardinalstage.org.

Cardinal show anything but ‘Ordinary’

By John Lyle Belden

For these unusual times, Cardinal Stage of Bloomington presents an unusual theatre experience.

Shown online on-demand through Feb. 21, Cardinal’s production of the musical “Ordinary Days” by Adam Gwon relies on technological wizardry to allow four actors to interact while performing their parts in Covid-safe separate locations. Set in New York, circa 2008, we meet four “ordinary” individuals who will have an extraordinary influence on one others’ lives.

Our introduction to them, and this play, initially struck us with an uneasy “what’s this?” feeling. The obviously green-screen NYC backdrop, with our struggling artist-slash-artist’s-assistant-slash-pamphleteer? singing about – what’s this about, again? – but he sure is eager. And wordy. This song could have been written better. And there’s just a single piano in the background. Why does this feel like an audition tape?

If it all seems puzzling to you as well, stick with it. It gets much better.

After Warren (Henry Miller) ends his song with a winning smile, we jump to frustrated grad student Deb (Nina Donville) singing the foundation of her character arc, then to Jason (Julian Diaz-Granados) and Claire (Kayla Marie Eilers) who we discover are moving in together. So that connects two of the characters, but how about the others? A lost-and-found, followed by an odd but artsy rendezvous, kicks off an unlikely relationship between two souls seeking their purpose in art and words. And by the time this hour and a half (no intermission) is over, one pair will affect the other in a subtle but profound way.

Donville delivers as a woman struggling with the expectations of others, and herself, brought to a personal crossroads by impish Warren, in whom Miller channels the “if I can make it there” spirit of the Big Apple, even when his perpetual optimism is challenged. Diaz-Granados’ Jason is a hopeful romantic, wishing to communicate the depth of his feelings for Claire, but instead, at the worst moment, blurts out a proposal. Eilers effectively presents Claire as someone yearning to move forward, but held by a nagging uncertainty. Under the direction of Cardinal Artistic Director Kate Galvin, Gwon’s plot gently weaves together these “ordinary” yet interesting lives with a gust of the wind through the high-rises.

Also tying the scenes and thematic threads together are music director Ray Fellman on piano, and video editor Alyssa V. Gomez of CO-OP Productions, who brilliantly creates character interaction in this strange (for live stage fans) medium. For the vocal harmonies, I’m guessing credit goes in part to sound editor Robert Hornbostel. Rounding out the crew is stage manager Corey Hollinger.

To experience “Ordinary Days,” go to CardinalStage.org, and gather around the screen for a $25 “household” ticket, but only through Sunday.

Searching for something to believe in at ‘Prospect Hill’

By John Lyle Belden

What or who do you have faith in? What is it telling you? And are you truly listening?

These questions of faith and the angels among us come alive in “Prospect Hill,” a new play by Bruce Walsh, presented by Fat Turtle at the IndyFringe Theatre.

Jacob is a therapist badly in need of help, himself. His husband, Rex, a cancer survivor whose last round of chemo left a particularly frustrating side effect, obsesses with kitchen renovations to avoid their waning relationship. Jacob has given up alcohol, but finds addictive urges satisfied by the constant snacks and sodas brought by his young patient, Ethan, a driver for PepsiCo.

And it doesn’t help that Jacob has been in contact with his Mennonite father, who doesn’t approve of him being gay, let alone his relationship.

Ethan has his own problems: His girlfriend is expecting their child, but now wants nothing to do with him, in part due to his drug addiction. He wants to make more to help support the baby, so, hearing that Rex retired from his sales job in his 50s, asks him for “financial advice.” Relishing the challenge, Rex sees the young man as a potential protege. 

But when the inevitable conflicts occur, a sort of miracle happens. Could Ethan be the “third angel” in their relationship?

Directed by Fat Turtle Managing Director Aaron Cleveland, our well-chosen trio of actors bring out three vivid characters, each searching for meaning in his own way.

Zachariah Stonerock presents the stoic Jacob as a miserable mensch who has been worn down over time, so occupied with pleasing others he has no idea how to be happy, himself. Going through the motions, he simply repeats a mindfulness exercise he had just heard from Rex in his session with Ethan — to hilarious effect — almost accidentally making a sort of breakthrough.

Craig Kemp as Rex counters with energy and humor, masking a deep desperation. He needs to feel vital. not only in his loins (another comic point), but in his mind, as his salesman’s instincts are aroused by the prospect of “selling” Ethan to his old pharma company as a potential employee. Meanwhile, despite proclaiming his atheism, he is hooked on a “six-part series” on PBS on the world’s religions, finding inspiration in spite of himself.

As for 20-ish Ethan, Evren Wilder Elliott* excellently presents a character who seems at first so simple, yet has depths and aspects that even surprise him. “I am here because I am a prophet,” Ethan says — to be fair, it wasn’t his idea — which seems absurd, until it isn’t. The actor channeled the insecurity of playing their first “male” role to convincingly give us a grown boy full of bluster and desire to do right, yet lacking the personal discipline to pull it off. 

This locally-based script (Prospect Hill is a neighborhood in Bloomington) makes an excellent debut, a nice blend of human drama with laugh-out-loud moments. It’s still a work in progress, as the ending seemed a little muddled, hinting at more story to tell (perhaps a sequel play or trilogy could come of this?), but it raises some interesting points on faith, relationships, and what we seek to do with our lives.

Performances run through Nov. 24 at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair, downtown Indianapolis. Get info at fatturtletheatre.com and tickets at www.indyfringe.org.

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*Trans actor formerly known as A.M. Elliott